By Michael Durao
April 14th, 2011

Recent incidents of fratricide by NATO aircraft in Libya demonstrate a pervasive issue with the application of airpower that has severely undermined US credibility in the War on Terror and has most recently manifested itself in Libya’s civil war; namely, failure to adequately coordinate with ground assets.  Forward air control (FAC) cannot be limited solely to close air support where friendly assets are known to be in dangerous proximity or ground-based precision targeting is required.  Instead, better contextual identification of targets by ground assets rather than grainy video on a fighter’s cockpit display or a drone’s monitor is essential to diminish the threat of both friendly fire and collateral damage. 
The greater problem with poor FAC coordination has been haunting American operations for the last decade.  Transformational warfighting proponents’ obsession with drones gets drastically underplayed when a few dozen Pakistani civilians get killed every other week by Predators and Reapers.  While these drone strikes are certainly good at causing casualties in Waziristan, they’re inarguably terrible at identifying what’s being shot at.  Whether acting on unreliable human intelligence gathered from locals or other sources, the decision to launch a Hellfire is all too often accompanied by nothing but FLIR footage of nondescript buildings and human figures as the sole source of intelligence gathered and delivered in real-time on the target.

Such inadequately contextual data may be all that’s available when operating in areas as politically sensitive as Waziristan, but their tendency to enrage the local populace should drive policymakers to wonder whether it’s a worthy tradeoff for killing what are usually – assuming the intelligence is correct in the first place – a few low-ranking militants, especially as the Pakistani government continues to express ire against CIA drone operations within its borders.   The solution to the Waziristan problem is to restrict drone strikes to high-value targets whose deaths will strike a strategic blow to militants in the area; thinning out their numbers with $68,000-per-missile Hellfires and God knows how much in aviation fuel is not cost effective, reliable, nor working; instead, it is only promoting the continued radicalization of the region.

Boots on the ground to identify targets and locate them for airstrikes would further advance the reliability of such attacks, and despite the infeasibility of placing ground assets in Pakistan, fratricide against Libyan rebels can easily be prevented through this measure.  American and British SOF assets are known to be operating in Libya at this moment, but cooperation with the NTC and its military branches appears to remain limited due to lukewarm political recognition of the rebel government by the West.  If the US and NATO are willing to engage in combat against Qaddafi’s forces from the air, there’s no reason to not take the small leap of giving already-present SOF operators the role of FACs embedded with rebel forces, capable of better identifying Qaddafi’s forces and reporting the location of rebel formations.  Of course, few governments involved in Libyan air policing have yet to even formally call for Qaddafi to be deposed by force.  As of now, the rebels are dying and the West is losing credibility in North Africa and the Middle East as a result of its inability to take a coherent stand on the situation in Libya.  

If operations in Libya are to continue, it’s essential that limited use of ground assets – at the very least as FACs – be carried out and with greater cooperation with the rebels.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.

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